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In the last century, the ゐ and ゑ characters were eliminated from common use. But it seems like there used to also be a "wu" character that has since been lost. Given that it's a lot harder to find information about "wu", I assume it vanished much earlier.

Around when did the pronunciation and written character for "wu" drop out of use?

2 Answers 2

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The English Wikipedia article on Kana suggests that there has never been a "wu" sound in Japanese.

There are no kana for Ye, Yi or Wu, as corresponding syllables do not occur in Japanese natively[.]

The Japanese Wikipedia article on the sound that would be "wu" confirms this.

日本語では「[w]」の子音と「[u]」の母音は共に/u/であるため、「う」の発音と同じになり、「う」と区別されない。

Because in Japanese the consonant "w" and the vowel "u" both share the /u/ sound, "wu" becomes the same pronunciation as "u" and the two sounds cannot be distinguished.

This page gives information on why there is a kana for "wu" (于).

明治初期の国語教育では「五十音図」優位の見地から、表②のように「[yi]」「[ye]」「于」という文字を無理やり当てた教科書が出されたこともあったようだ。

Because of the "Fifty Sounds" view that was ascendant in Japanese language teaching at the beginning of the Meiji period, apparently some textbooks even forced kana on yi, ye, and wu, as you can see in figure 2.

The Japanese Wikipedia pages on ye and yi seem to give more information.

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  • I was looking at the Japanese Wiki page earlier (though I had less success in understanding it), and on the table under 五十音図 there are characters where "wu", "ye", and "yi" would be. Any ideas what those are?
    – Troyen
    Jun 6, 2011 at 5:27
  • Those are just the kana for u, e, and i. Jun 6, 2011 at 5:33
  • @Troyen Added some information about the kana for wu, ye, and yi.
    – Amanda S
    Jun 6, 2011 at 5:56
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    That character "于" you copied is kanji, not kana, IMHO.
    – YOU
    Jun 6, 2011 at 6:05
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    @YOU Since wu, ye, and yi are not actual Japanese syllables, they are not represented in most fonts. 于 seems to be used in the Wikipedia article because it closely resembles the ersatz wu character.
    – Amanda S
    Jun 6, 2011 at 6:19
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While the ゐ and ゑ characters were indeed eliminated from common use, there never was a WU character, at least not officially. The wikipedia page linked by Amanda mentions attempts to create a proper equivalent to the other わ行 letters just for the sake of completeness, but this letter (which looked like 于 in katakana but apparently had no hiragana equivalent) had never seen wide use.

The reason for that is that the sounds /wi/ and /we/ were indeed in existence in Japanese at some point of time, so they were naturally given their own letters - but there has never been any /wu/ sound (as well as any /yi/ sound) in Japanese, and thus it wasn't given any letter.

That's not to say such sounds are impossible: English has both sounds (/wu/ in would, /yi/ in year, which most Japanese speakers would pronounce the same as ear). It's just that Japanese never had them. /ye/ is a slightly different story: Japanese does have a distinct /ye/ sound now (written as イェ, though some people may pronounce it the same as イエ). And it also had a /ye/ sound back in the Edo period, but it was actually just the normal pronunciation of /e/ in the beginning of a word (which reverted back to /e/ in modern times). That's where some English spellings such as Yen, Yebisu and Yedo come from.

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    Actually, wu did have a hiragara equivalent; it looked like a ほ with a 于 replacing the right side (according to the Japanese Wikipedia article).
    – Amanda S
    Jun 6, 2011 at 15:28
  • @Amanda: if I understood the Japanese article correctly, it was an ad-hoc way to mark it. Anyway, I have to admit I've never seen either letter (the hiragana or katakana WU) and I've read quite a few texts that were written before the spelling reform.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 6, 2011 at 17:00
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    Another interesting thing about ye... The ん the end of a word is a back of the throat n sound (Uvular nasal ɴ). When making that sound and the moving to え, one naturally makes a y sound (j in IPA???) in the process. That's why 千円 is pronounced 'senyen.' Jun 10, 2011 at 20:18
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    @Jeshizaemon, that might depend on dialect -- my experience is with Tōhoku and Kantō Japanese, where I'm not familiar with any such palatalization. To my ear, せんえん is pronounced more like [[sẽɴẽɴ]]. Consider also 反映【はんえい】, where again I'm not accustomed to hearing any additional front glide //j//: [[hãɴeː]]. Some phonetic transcriptions use [[ɰ̃]] instead of [[ɴ]], to try to show that this sound doesn't always involve full closure of the throat -- it's sometimes realized as emphasized nasality while still allowing some airflow through the mouth. Mar 15, 2021 at 18:35
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    @Jeshizaemon, you might hear that //j// in 禁煙【きんえん】, perhaps as [[kĩɰ̃ʲẽɰ̃]]. In this case, it's the influence of the //i// in きん that causes this, and not the uvular nasal. Mar 15, 2021 at 22:08

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